A new survey from the University of Worcester, conducted online on 500 children between the ages of seven and 14, has found that "classic children's literary heroes are dying out". Only 45% of the children questioned had heard of Alice in Wonderland and 8% of Mary Lennox. Nearly a fifth of the kids thought CS Lewis's wardrobe led to The Secret Garden, while 8% thought it led to Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory; 10% thought Long John Silver was in Peter Pan and 18% thought Matilda lived in the Swiss Alps.Actually, Long John Silver is in Peter Pan, at least referentially; he's referenced at least once, probably twice - as the Sea Cook. We also get a mention in PP of Flint, the old pirate captain of the Walrus, who terrorized everyone except Long John Silver. Then, of course, is the fact that Barrie was explicitly and cheerfully homage/imitating Stevenson's novel.
Alice, Treasure Island, the Secret Garden, Peter Pan are all well over 100 years old. What 100+ year-old novels are most adults still reading? Thomas Hardy fans, where are you?
According to the article, the survey reported that "18% of children thought Aslan was a giraffe," an idea which amuses Flood and delights me; Flood also writes that "I'm not going to worry that only 4% of the children had read Huckleberry Finn, and that the majority hadn't read Gulliver's Travels: those two books are classics, and just as suitable for adults."
Clutching my head and shrieking (silently) - WHEN will people learn that Gulliver's Travels was never a children's book? And that Huck Finn isn't one, either? I know there are Junior Illustrated Classics of both littering up the dwindling children's section of bookstores; this doesn't mean Gulliver and Huck are for children. Gulliver in particular is a complex social/political satire - an 18th century satire, written in 1725, one of the earliest English novels - why should anyone aged 14 or younger have read it? Only a child prodigy, or a prodigious reader, should be reading either book at such young ages, and even then, the complexity of both texts demands a breadth of knowledge and experience (both social and literary) that most younger readers just don't have.
Flood doesn't mind that these "just as suitable for adults" books aren't being read by kids, because "they won't be forgotten," (as if that's the most important thing?) But she wallows in nostalgia, and drags us along with her, in the next paragraph:
More depressing, though, is that some of the novels that defined my childhood, by Arthur Ransome (Swallows and Amazons), E Nesbit (The Railway Children) and LM Montgomery (Anne of Green Gables) are, according to the survey, scarcely read these days. Heidi, too, is fading into obscurity, apparently, and it makes me sad that children aren't being mesmerised, like I was, by the thought of the wind in the fir trees outside the grandfather's house...Again, these are books that are close to 100 years old. Ransome's was published in 1930; Anne showed up in 1908, and The Railway Children right around 1900. There's not a thing wrong with old books - I myself adore them - but when I was a kid, probably not too many years off from Flood's childhood, I certainly wasn't reading 100-year-old books; I'd never even heard of E. Nesbit until I was in college. And I turned out just fine, better than fine, in fact, since I've been collecting degrees in English literature focusing on 100-year-old children's books.
Flood does redeem herself by writing, at the end, that "my feeling is that you can encourage kids to read, you can wave the books you loved in front of them in the hope they'll love them too, but in the end they'll find their own favourites."
I wish this had been the highlight of the article, instead of buried in the final paragraph. We seem to have this idea that if children now aren't having the childhoods we nostalgically remember/imagine for ourselves, then somehow they aren't doing it right. But memory is notoriously faulty, and anyway - children's childhoods now aren't about us. It's not about our nostalgia or our favorite books. I see this over and over, in popular writing about children's literature especially; adults, parents, can't seem to get over themselves and their own childhood nostalgia. It's horribly unfair to actual children, and it's narcissistic to a revolting extreme.
Yes, so kids aren't daydreaming away in the secret garden - so what? that place is appallingly rife with classism and sexism. And what American can read those Yorkshire accents, anyway? I love Nesbit's books, and I delight in teaching them - The Magic City always goes over well. But I also love Lemony Snicket and The Lightning Thief, and there are tons of kids being mesmerized by them, right now, in precisely the same way that Flood was mesmerized by Heidi.
The classics aren't going anywhere; there are enough nerds and bookworms and bibliophiles and graduate students to keep the classics alive for decades to come. We don't need to lament that 21st century kids aren't lounging about, lost in the books of the 19th century; better to celebrate the books they are reading, and make sure that publishers, booksellers, schools, and libraries have access to - and make available to everyone - truly great new books for younger readers.